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Wystan Hugh Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden

The English-born American poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His works center on moral issues and evidence strong political, social, and psychological orientations.

In the 1930s W. H. Auden became famous when he was described by literary journalists as the leader of the so-called "Oxford Group," a circle of young English poets influenced by literary Modernism, in particular by the aesthetic principles espoused by T. S. Eliot. Rejecting the traditional poetic forms favored by their Victorian predecessors, the Modernist poets favored concrete imagery and free verse. In his work, Auden applied conceptual and scientific knowledge to traditional verse forms and metrical patterns while assimilating the industrial countryside of his youth.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. His father was the medical officer of the city of Birmingham and a psychologist. His mother was a devout Anglican, and the combination of religious and scientific or analytic themes are implicit throughout Auden's work. He was educated at St. Edmund's preparatory school, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who later gained a wide reputation as a novelist. At Oxford University, fellow undergraduates were Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, who, with Auden, formed the collective variously labeled the Oxford Group or the "Auden Generation."

At school Auden was interested in science, and at Oxford, where he studied English, his chief interest was Anglo-Saxon. He disliked the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats, whom he was inclined to refer to as "Kelly and Sheets." This break with the English post-Romantic tradition was important for his contemporaries. It is perhaps still more important that Auden was the first poet in English to use the imagery (and sometimes the terminology) of clinical psychoanalysis.

Early Travels and Publications

A small volume of his poems was privately printed by Stephen Spender in 1928, while Auden was still an undergraduate. Poems was published a year later by Faber and Faber (of which T. S. Eliot was a director). The Orators (1932), a volume consisting of odes, parodies of school speeches and sermons, and the strange, almost surreal "Journal of an Airman" provided a barrage of satire against England, "this country of ours where no one is well." It set the mood for a generation of public school boys who were in revolt against the empire of England and fox hunting.

When he had completed school, Auden traveled in Germany. In 1937 he went with MacNeice to Iceland and in 1938 with Isherwood to China. Literary results of these journeys were Letters from Iceland (1937) and Journey to aWar (1939), the first written with MacNeice and the second with Isherwood. Auden also wrote several plays in collaboration, notably 1935's The Dog beneath the Skin (another satire on England) and The Ascent of F 6 (1931). More than a decade later Auden again worked in collaboration—this time with Chester Kallmann on the librettos for several operas, of which the most important was Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951).

In 1939 Auden took up residence in the United States, supporting himself by teaching at various universities. In 1946 he became a U.S. citizen, by which time his literary career had become a series of well-recognized successes. He received the Pulitzer Prize and Bollingen Award and enjoyed his standing as one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University. In his inaugural address, "Making Knowing and Judging," he explored ideas about his vocation as a poet.

Poetic Themes and Techniques

Auden's early poetry, influenced by his interest in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in psychoanalysis, was sometimes riddle-like, sometimes jargonish and clinical. It also contained private references inaccessible to most readers. At the same time it had a clouded mysteriousness that would disappear in his later poetry. In the 1930s his poetry ceased to be mystifying; still dealing with difficult ideas, however, it could at times remain abstruse. His underlying preoccupation was a search for interpretive systems of analytic thinking and faith. Clues to the earlier poetry are to be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. In the later poems (after "New Year Letter," in which he turns to Christianity), some clues can be traced in the works of SÓren Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other theologians.

Among Auden's highly regarded attributes was the ability to think symbolically and rationally at the same time, so that intellectual ideas weretransformed into a uniquely personal, idiosyncratic, often witty imagistic idiom. He concretized ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the austere outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that is interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love" and "Look Stranger."

Often Auden's poetry may seem a rather marginal criticism of life and society written from the sidelines. Yet sometimes it moves to the center of the time in history in which he and his contemporaries lived. In "The Shield of Achilles" he recreated the anguish of the modern world of totalitarian societies in a poem which holds one particular time in a mirror for all times. Auden was learned and intelligent, a virtuoso of form and technique. In his poetry he realized a lifelong search for a philosophical and religious position from which to analyze and comprehend the individual life in relation to society and to the human condition in general. He was able to express his scorn for authoritarian bureaucracy, his suspicion of depersonalized science, and his belief in a Christian God.

Later Works

In his final years, Auden wrote the volumes City without Walls, and Many Other Poems, (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). All three works are noted for their lexical range and humanitarian content. Auden's penchant for altering and discarding poems has prompted publication of several anthologies in the decades since his death, September 28, 1973, in Vienna, Austria. The multi-volume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989.

Further Reading

Criticism and interpretation of Auden's works may be found in such studies as Stan Smith, W. H. Auden (1997), R. P. T. Davenport-Hines, Auden (1995), Anthony Hecht, The Hidden Law: the Poetry of W. H. Auden (1993), Allan Edwin Rodway, A Preface to Auden (1984), Edward Callan, Auden: A Carnival of Intellect (1983), Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981), and Charles Osborne, W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (1979). In addition, Auden figures prominently in the autobiographies of some of his contemporaries. See, for example, Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938; rev. ed. 1948), Christopher Isherwood, Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (1938), and Stephen Spender, World within a World (1951). The Oxford Group is examined in Michael O'Neill, Auden, MacNeice, Spender: The Thirties Poetry (1992). □

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Auden, W. H.

W. H. Auden

Born: February 21, 1907
York, England
Died: September 28, 1973
Vienna, Austria

English-born American poet

The English-born American poet W. H. Auden was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His works center on moral issues and show strong political, social, and psychological (involving the study of the mind) orientations.

Early life

Wystan Hugh Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England. He was the last of three sons born to George and Constance Auden. His father was the medical officer for the city of Birmingham, England, and a psychologist (a person who studies the mind). His mother was a devoted Anglican (a member of the Church of England). The combination of religious and scientific themes are buried throughout Auden's work. The industrial area where he grew up shows up often in his adult poetry. Like many young boys in his city, he was interested in machines, mining, and metals and wanted to be a mining engineer. With both grandfathers being Anglican ministers, Auden once commented that if he had not become a poet he might have ended up as an Anglican bishop.

Another influential childhood experience was his time served as a choirboy. He states in his autobiographical sketch, A Certain World, "it was there that I acquired a sensitivity to language which I could not have acquired in any other way." He was educated at St. Edmund's preparatory school and at Oxford University. At Oxford fellow undergraduates Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, with Auden, formed the group called the Oxford Group or the "Auden Generation."

At school Auden was interested in science, but at Oxford he studied English. He disliked the Romantic (nineteenth-century emotional style of writing) poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822) and John Keats (17951821), whom he was inclined to refer to as "Kelly and Sheets." This break with the English post-Romantic tradition was important for his contemporaries. It is perhaps still more important that Auden was the first poet in English to use the imagery (language that creates a specific image) and sometimes the terminology (terms that are specific to a field) of clinical psychoanalysis (analysis and treatment of emotional disorders).

Early publications and travels

In 1928, when Auden was twenty-one, a small volume of his poems was privately printed by a school friend. Poems was published a year later by Faber and Faber (of which T. S. Eliot [18881965] was a director). The Orators (1932) was a volume consisting of odes (poems focused on extreme feelings), parodies (take offs) of school speeches, and sermons that criticized England. It set the mood for a generation of public school boys who were in revolt against the empire of Great Britain and fox hunting.

After completing school Auden traveled with friends in Germany, Iceland, and China. He then worked with them to write Letters from Iceland (1937) and Journey To A War (1939). In 1939 Auden took up residence in the United States, supporting himself by teaching at various universities. In 1946 he became a U.S. citizen, by which time his literary career had become a series of well-recognized successes. He received the Pulitzer Prize and the Bollingen Award and enjoyed his standing as one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. From 1956 to 1961 he was professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Poetic themes and techniques

Auden's early poetry, influenced by his interest in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in psychoanalysis, was sometimes riddle-like and clinical. It also contained private references that most readers did not understand. At the same time it had a mystery that would disappear in his later poetry.

In the 1930s W. H. Auden became famous when literary journalists described him as the leader of the so-called "Oxford Group," a circle of young English poets influenced by literary Modernism, in particular by the artistic principles adopted by T. S. Eliot. Rejecting the traditional poetic forms favored by their Victorian predecessors, the Modernist poets favored concrete imagery and free verse. In his work Auden applied concepts and science to traditional verse forms and metrical (having a measured rhythm) patterns while including the industrial countryside of his youth. Coming to the United States was seen by some as the start of a new phase of his work. World War II (193945; a war in which France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan) had soured him to politics and warmed him to morality and spirituality.

Among Auden's highly regarded skills was the ability to think in terms of both symbols and reality at the same time, so that intellectual ideas were transformed. He rooted ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the stern and cold outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that was interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love" and "Look Stranger." His literary contributions include librettos (opera texts) and motion picture documentaries. He worked with Chester Kallmann on the librettos, the most important of which was T. S. Eliot's The Rakes Progress (1951).

Auden was well educated and intelligent, a genius of form and technique. In his poetry he realized a lifelong search for a philosophical and religious position from which to analyze and comprehend the individual life in relation to society and to the human condition in general. He was able to express his dislike for a difficult government, his suspicion of science without human feeling, and his belief in a Christian God.

Later works

In his final years Auden wrote the volumes City without Walls, and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), and Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974), which was published posthumously (after his death). All three works are noted for their lexical (word and vocabulary relationship) range and humanitarian (compassionate) content. Auden's tendency to alter and discard poems has prompted publication of several anthologies (collected works) in the decades since his death on September 28, 1973, in Vienna, Austria. The multivolume Complete Works of W. H. Auden was published in 1989. Auden is now considered one of the greatest poets of the English language.

For More Information

Davenport-Hines, R. P. T. Auden. London: Heinemann, 1995.

Hecht, Anthony. The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Smith, Stan. W. H. Auden. New York: Blackwell, 1997.

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Auden, W. H.

Auden, W. H. (1907–73). Poet, essayist, and dramatist, whose name is often given to the literary generation of the 1930s when, it has been said, ‘the red flag was intertwined with the old school tie’. After Oxford, time in Berlin offered release and a new perspective on his own society, Marx, Freud, and Eliot all influencing Poems (1930). Yet he was as ready to write ‘in praise of limestone’, the Icelandic sagas, or simple human love. Intellectually restless, a brilliant chronicler of the times, in ‘Spain’ (1937) he wrote one of the definitive poems of a ‘low, dishonest decade’. On the eve of war he emigrated. American Auden omits the line from ‘Spain’ about ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’ and the long ‘New Year Letter’ (1941) shows a new engagement with Christianity. Increasingly the benign man of letters, he wrote the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951), returning to Oxford four years later as professor of poetry.

John Saunders

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Auden, Wystan Hugh

Auden, Wystan Hugh (1907–73). A poet increasingly involved in the exploration and expression of Christian themes. After the death of his mother (a committed Anglo-Catholic) in 1941, he became increasingly concerned with religion. This is particularly evident in a Christmas oratorio (written for Benjamin Britten), For the Time Being (1944) and a reflection on Good Friday, Horae Canonicae (1955). Acknowledgement of guilt becomes the ground of freedom: to live in the tangle of human history makes one, inevitably, an accomplice, but to acknowledge complicity is the beginning of grace.

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